William Hurt on ‘Humans’ and How He’s a “Theatre Practitioner”
“I find it more challenging when I’m asked to play characters that aren’t so interesting, which I usually refuse” – William Hurt
Set in a parallel present, Humans is about a society where the latest must-have gadget is a Synth – a highly-developed robotic servant, eerily similar to its live counterpart. In the hope of transforming the way his family lives, a husband purchases a Synth named Anita (Gemma Chan) against the wishes of his wife, only to discover that sharing life with a machine has far-reaching and chilling consequences.
William Hurt plays Dr. George Millican, one of the original Synth engineers. Since his wife died, he’s has retreated from the world, except for his out of date Synth companion Odi. George treats this particular Synth more like a son than a piece of machinery, due to Odi’s recall of George’s happiest memories. Unfortunately, however, the aging Odi’s body and mind have been failing, not unlike George’s.
In this interview, Hurt talks about why he took on the role, its challenges and how theatre has shaped him.
Humans airs on Sundays and 9pm on AMC
Could you talk about what it was that first attracted you to this part and made you decide that you had to do it?
William Hurt: Well, initially it was just the title. And because that’s my topic, you know. And then realized that it was about human beings and machines, but still titled Humans, it was intriguing. And it’s about a topic that I’ve been interested in most of my life.
And then I started reading it and I realized it was full of character and good questions like the nature of this interview today, and the technology that we’re using to have it, which is so dislocating but at the same time, pretty interesting. So this is an example of why the series interested me.
Ever since Altered States, you’ve made a lot of movies that have had science fiction but where real science was at a core of it. Is that just a coincidence or is that a subject you’ve always been interested in, how science relates to people and so on?
William Hurt: Oh, no question. It’s been a fundamental interest of mine, the whole time, since I was young.
What originally fascinated you about it and what, as you’ve gotten into all these different roles have you found fascinating?
William Hurt: As I began to read science fiction, important science fiction, specific, most especially Isaac Asimov and began to realize that it wasn’t anywhere near as much fiction as people were thinking, or generally people were thinking. It fired my imagination, you know, to red hot.
I just realized what they were talking about was anything but imaginary. And so I was enthralled and always have been.
And so particularly on this one, on Humans, what parts of it particularly fascinate you?
William Hurt: The thing about Humans that most interested me as a specific project was the stance from which the questions about the whole subject are posed and asked. And the stance is our life today. So it’s, you know, it’s more about, not about the future being asked what it’s going to be from the future standpoint.
It’s the present being asked what the future’s going to be with, by introducing that future to us now, who we are now. So it really is a vivid way of posing the questions to viewers today.
What I mean is that in our, you know, so we’re watching the television, and in that television is a family, and the family, there’s a house, and in the house is a living room, and in walks the Synth. And that living room is like our living room. That kitchen is like our kitchen.
Those people are like our people, like us. And they’re going to ask the questions that we would ask if that happened right now. And that’s the most vivid way to pose questions about the help, the hindrance, the invasion, the furtherance of human beings.
What was it you found challenging about portraying this character?
William Hurt: I find it more challenging when I’m asked to play characters that aren’t so interesting, which I usually refuse. It’s challenging – I can’t say that this was challenging because I was so furiously kind of in love it, you know. So I just went to work very excited every day.
I didn’t feel challenged in the sense that I was worried or, you know, that it was an impediment. There was no impediment here, unless it was the standard pediment that not having enough time to prepare, but which is a great one. So that would be the challenge.
The challenge would be the standard idea of preparation, but in this particular case having it done in Britain and there’s a, that comes the culture of theater, which I come from so there was a lot more possible there for me, lots of levels of communications. Go ahead.
Was there anything then about Millican that you thought of that may not have originally been in the script for him, maybe something about his backstory?
William Hurt: Yes, I don’t, you know, the things, you can add anything you want as long as it doesn’t contradict anything that’s there. That’s the rule. The rule is you can invent anything that doesn’t contradict the truth of the character as described.
And no character as it exists on the page, in any script I’ve ever read is a large percentage of its potential because they leave you, in a good script they leave you creative room. So they didn’t write down how his hair, his hairdo, so I did that.
There are lots of things I invented about him, using, you know, my own personality, traits and other ones that I invented for him and, but I didn’t contradict anything on the page.
Initially I was going to ask what drew you to play Dr. Millican, but I did find an interview with you from a couple years ago, where you talked about you don’t play people, you chose to go for the character.
William Hurt: Right. I’m a character actor.
If you would elaborate kind of on that statement now and how it pertains to your portrayal of Dr. Millican?
William Hurt: Well, I, we were just talking about Asimov protocols and how they breakdown into three elegant, simple, vast ideas. I would add one more note to the comment that I made about character. I do go for character but I go, the character as a function of the entire play, the entire screen play.
So really what I want when I’m reading a screenplay, is to have the feeling when I’m finished with it that I would basically like to go and play any character they offer me or even go for coffee on the film set. That I want, my feeling is that I want to be part of that project.
So that’s the first criteria for me, is do I want to be part of the whole, the whole thing.
I understand that you’re a private pilot?
William Hurt: Yes, I was. I mean I haven’t flown for a while but I flew for about 30 years, yes.
I was just wondering if any of that training ever helped you with your characters on screen?
William Hurt: Yes, it’s, I mean what helps you with your characters is inspirations in life. And the hobbies that I’ve chosen are the ones that connected me to life and that certain is one of those things that flying thrilled me for most of my life. I started out very young flying unusual aircraft, flying in unusual aircraft.
The first time I flew long distance was in 1951 when I flew from San Francisco to Hawaii in a plane called the MARS, which is larger than a 747, was an amphibious airplane, prop driven and it would double decker with birds. It had been a military aircraft and then was converted to commercial.
I flew PBYs in Catalina – in, I flew in PBYs, Catalina’s, EC3s, 2s, 4s, you know, C47s, all those things in the Pacific in the early 50s. I flew, I was in, I think I was in the second Pans Atlantic 707 flight, I think it was in the sixth or seventh Pans Atlantic comet flight.
I’ve had myself, I’ve owned airplanes from Cessna 180s. I had a part interest in a de Havilland Beaver. I had a Cessna 5, Seneca 5, I had a 206, a Bonanza, you know.
So I flew quite a bunch of stuff and it inspired me no end to see the world from that point of view, from high up but also in the peace time, civilian job, which is the job with the highest level of personal responsibility legally permitted.
How has theater shaped you? I mean you’ve done a zillion movies but what is it about the theater that just kind of shapes you as an actor or a person?
William Hurt: It’s great that you ask that question. Thank you very much for it. I don’t actually see myself as a film actor. I see myself as a theater practitioner. And I see all the different forms of expression in the theater as being what I do.
And it has lots of different parts but it’s fundamentally the same basic art form, and I reduced it to its components, it’s fundamental components a long time ago, the same way that Asimov tried to do with the protocols. And I see it, I see what I do as going to work at the art of the theater.
And that can happen in television. It can happen on film. It can happen on stage. It can happen lots of ways. But I do see it fundamentally as that art form and the principles of drama.
And the principles of character development, and the principles of the relationship of character to destiny are its perennial questions and those are the questions that interest me in life and that’s why I do it.
They referred to you as Sir William a couple times, but you’re not really a sir, right, because you’re born in America.
William Hurt: No.
So does this happen to you a lot?
William Hurt: They call me sir because I’m old.
But do you enjoy it sometimes when they do call you that, or not?
William Hurt: Well, I mean, you know, if they mean, when they sir, do they mean I’m a has-been, I don’t enjoy it. But when they sir, it’s out of respect, I think that’s great.
We talked a lot about your character being an older, retired doctor and both have physical and memory issues. Do you think we’re going to have a conversation in this show, of course you know more better than we do, about the value of wisdom, age, and how that reflects upon humanity?
William Hurt: I don’t know how it’s going to go with the series, because I don’t know what they have planned for the series. Anything that this series would do now or in the future, I’d want to be of, if they ask me to be.
And I can’t imagine that, that question you’re asking, which is essentially important one wouldn’t be part of the game. I can’t imagine that all important question would be there. I think that’s really kind of what it’s all about.
Do you think that’s what one thing that separates us from AIs today and always will?
William Hurt: I don’t think necessarily always if the components of consciousness and memory are brought together with as much reverence as nature has created us with. If you make carefully asked questions with a lot of information, you’re more likely to come up with some reasonable.
So I do think that certainly the part of a potentially sentient machine that would be actually, probably easier to accomplish than consciousness itself, would be the library part, the history part, the access to information part.
I think that, that’s something that right now, is more developed than the collation or the synthesis part, or I mean, not synthesis, maybe that’s not the best word, but the collation or the interpolation part. In other words, I think accessing information is more possible at the moment than analyzing it well. I think the algorithm for analysis are the ones that you have to be most watchful about.
It as scary as the big data today.
William Hurt: Yes, exactly right. And then you have this, you know, this issue you between notions of privacy, which wouldn’t necessarily be what someone in the NSA would be afraid it is, which is an indulgence or a right to, you know, for a few people to harm many people.
It could also be that without essences known of as privacy, that you won’t be able to create the bubbles of quiet and freedom in which human imagine can dare to go places it hasn’t been before. So that function of the notions of individuality hasn’t been talked about very much.
Most of the ones that are talked about are the ones that infer the anarchic instincts or the indulgent pleasure, the ones that are irreverent and irrelevant to human society.
But, you know, without that capacity to go where we haven’t been before, usually the vessel for that is a smaller vessel, the individual vessel, versus the mass level, which is a structural vessel.
They’re both necessary, but if a society is defined as security on the one hand and innovation on the other, or safety and love, love of the whole and love of the individual, I think you’re cutting off half of the horizon.